BY THE time Omer Hejazeen walked into the secretariat at Patna, he was already cursing the day he agreed to return to Bihar. Months ago, he met Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who was by then searching for people of Bihari origin to help him save Bihar. As Omer recalled, Nitish Kumar was kind during the meeting and asked him to have a look at Bihar. Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi too was in the room. Something about the manner in which they spoke and looked at him made Omer agree to the trip. From Dubai he took his 122nd flight for the year, and reached Patna.
The first sight of Patna can hit hard. The city is about 2,500 years old and had nurtured human thought and progress for several centuries. It was called Pataliputra then. Now, there are far too many people on the roads, and too much jostling and yelling. There are cycle-rickshaws everywhere, with people bent low as they pull the load in a mighty effort. There is a musty smell. There’s a sense that the city is straining. Too much has been taken from them. Too little given back. Good lord, thought Omer, nothing has changed. He had left Patna 22 years ago and it was still the same.
He stepped into the secretariat in deep blue trousers and jacket, shining black shoes, white shirt and red tie. He was surprised when he was stopped and asked for the purpose of his visit. “Wow, I thought. They were controlling the crowds. It was the first sign of professionalism for me. I looked around and saw no white or khadi,” says Omer. He walked into the chief minister’s chambers. “I told him I didn’t find any change in Bihar. Nitish Kumar looked at me and said he had not told the people of Bihar anything. But, he said, he had made a commitment to himself. He would change Bihar. It was the second time Nitish Kumar impressed me. I thought the man had guts,” says Omer.
NITISH KUMAR asked Omer what he could do for Bihar. The chief minister said there were thousands of Bihari workers in the Gulf. “He asked me to think about what I could offer. He told me to pick a sector and invest,” recalls Omer. A day later, Omer had a plan. There are about 10,000 Biharis who work as unskilled labour in the Gulf region after having completed school education. Omer thought he could provide vocational training to such people; offer degrees in technical courses, so they could earn more and live better.
Having a plan in Bihar may mean little. For it to be acted upon, you need land. And land in Bihar is a tale. In 1786, Lord Cornwallis was appointed the Governor-General of India and Commander- in-Chief of Bengal. He set about changing the judicial and revenue systems in India. Bihar, as part of eastern India, was among the first areas Cornwallis looked at. He introduced the Permanent Settlement system, essentially retaining the then existing ownership of land. He gave the owners, or zamindars, the right to collect tax from the tenants on the land and pass it on to the East India Company.
The amount of tax was fixed. For instance, a zamindar may have paid Rs 1 lakh for an agreed number of villages or districts, for decades. This resulted in a permanent settlement between the zamindars and the East India Company. Over time, the land a zamindar owned was divided between his children and so it carried on for generations. The state barely intervened.
Nitish Kumar tends to stay off land as well. So, the state of Bihar does not acquire land for private investors. If Omer had to set up a technical education hub, he needed to buy land. “Nitish Kumar had suggested I take over an ITI (Industrial Training Institute) and run it profitably. We went to Darbhanga (north-central Bihar) and found that the teachers were not paid for months. The machines were expensive and unused. It looked like there would be plenty of hiccups in running an ITI. So we thought, why don’t we set up something on our own? We registered a family trust and began to buy land in Darbhanga,” says Omer.
Land holdings are not huge in this part of Bihar. Thus, an entrepreneur may need to engage with several owners. It is a tiresome process and can easily go wrong. “One of the farmers wanted Rs 3 lakh more. He said he had to pay his daughter’s dowry. This came after we paid him the agreed amount for his land. It was holding us up. Finally, we gave him the money,” says Omer. Eventually, Omer says, his trust bought 32 acres at Rs 15 lakh an acre. This, in turn, created complications.
“Things are exaggerated in small towns. There were two immediate effects of our buying the land. First, people thought I have a money tree. My parents warned that I was now a prime kidnapping target. At first, we hired local security guards. But this caused me discomfort. I hated the culture of walking around with gun-toting guards. I have seen people do this in Africa and Sri Lanka. I never liked it. I also had no privacy. The guards heard everything I discussed. I got rid of them and applied for a licence to carry a gun. The second effect was an increase in land price. Soon after we bought land, the price went up to Rs 18 lakh an acre,” says Omer.
Darbhanga is a desperately poor town. The lanes are filthy, the drains overflow, the roads are rickety, the universities are the size of small government offices and the jobs are few. To reach his proposed college of technical education, Omer needed roads. It is one thing to make people enrol in a college. To make them get there is another thing altogether. Omer has used his 22 years outside India well. He does production in films, television and radio. He does public relations. He deals in arms. In Darbhanga, he got into construction.
“If I have to come here, I have to feel comfortable. The roads in Darbhanga are very bad. So we registered a company again and started working on roads and buildings.” Okpet Construction & Services Pvt. Ltd., the new company, is laying 21 km of road in a part of Darbhanga with extremely poor access. It will cost Omer Rs 12 crore. He hopes to make a profit of Rs 2 crore from this road.
Portions of Darbhanga are buzzing with activity, of which Omer’s company is only a part. The State is building bridges and laying roads inside Darbhanga, the Centre is laying national highways, and the poor have something to do. Finally, it appears, at least a portion of Bihar is awake. Omer has got so much at ease that he is also getting into food processing. He is even comfortable with having to pay what are variously called bribes or office expenses. “It works out to 1.25 per cent of my expenses. If it facilitates my billing and my work, I don’t mind. In the UAE, I have to pay a huge testing fee for the roads. Here, an engineer comes even at night and does the testing. It is only fair that he gets something,” says Omer. In all, he says he has invested Rs 32 crore over three years. In time, he hopes to get it all back and some.
This is new Bihar, where the chief minister talks to a businessman and things get started. Clearing proposals faster is one part of Nitish Kumar’s reform. The other big impact is on law and order. The roads in Patna are noisy and crowded till at least 8.30pm most days. Many ignore the traffic policeman or policewoman. Men tend to drink at roadside shops and kiosks, at times even during the day. People gather in groups to gossip and discuss. The roads have become a place to just be. This enrages drivers who have to squeeze through narrower paths, honking their way through. For the moment though, they are not complaining. They are just happy to be there. The locals say the roads used to empty at sunset in the past. Anyone out after that was fair game for looting, snatching and kidnapping. They say people returning to Patna by train or bus would spend the night at the railway station or bus station if they arrived after 10pm and reach home the next morning.
NOW, THERE is a sense of relief. Some families even catch the 9pm movie show. Mona Cinema, considered the best theatre in Bihar at the moment, draws about a hundred people for the late night show even on some weekdays. Some of them are families. The film world is, therefore, happy. Prakash Jha, filmmaker and entrepreneur, is making big moves. Jha has established his credentials with films like Damul, Gangaajal and Apaharan. He is putting together what he says is Bihar’s first multiplex mall, the P&M Mall, in the heart of Patna’s Pataliputra industrial estate. The mall is coming up where sick units lay earlier. It is expected to be ready by March this year, well in time the premiere of Jha’s new film Rajneeti.
THE MALL has five floors with 59 shops. It will have four cinemas, each seating about a thousand. When operational, the multiplex mall could have 1,200 people going home from the movies every midnight. It should be quite a sight on the roads of Patna. At the moment, 250 labourers work here a day. When ready, the mall could employ many more and trigger a buzz in Patna. In size, the P&M Mall is roughly the same as the parking lot in south Delhi’s Select Citywalk Mall. But for Patna, it is big.
Says Jha: “It has taken four and a half years to reverse the regression of several years. Now, we are getting a better environment for investment. But, private industry will not happen overnight when you have better opportunities in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat or Tamil Nadu.
“The mindset must change. If Biharis don’t buy back into Bihar, why will others? My idea of politics is linked strongly with the economy. Wealth generation is the only thing that can iron out caste and class. I am doing my bit. Apart from the mall, I am starting Bihar’s first fully indigenous television channel, Maurya TV, with production entirely in Patna.”
The filmmaker comes from Bettiah, the headquarters of West Champaran district near the border with Nepal. Bettiah was notorious as the kidnapping capital of Bihar. “Now,” he says, “kidnapping is gone; finished. The law is getting after the big culprits. Nitish has done a great clean-up job.”
Bhojpuri filmstars Ravi Kishan and Manoj Tiwari are happy as well. Kishan, who has acted in 114 films, many in Hindi, is working on the cult classic Devdas in Bhojpuri, set in Patna. He is also lobbying for a film city close to Patna. “We couldn’t travel for shooting at night in the past in Bihar. It used to scare people. Now, the state is breathing. It was choked for a long time. You can see couples at the movies after 8pm. There is a positive energy now. Earlier, Biharis were seen as criminals and duffers. Now, it is our turn. The investors are coming. Local actors from Patna and elsewhere are booked with me in Bhojpuri films every year. We used to operate from Mumbai but now I can assure the state of business if they give us a film city. A hundred Bhojpuri films will be made a year,” says Kishan.
Tiwari, who also sings, says the Bihar government did not respect artistes in the past. “I used to get calls from ministers in the previous government to perform. They would terrorise us. Criminals associated with political parties and the government also used to call. I was afraid of getting hurt. So, I used to perform for them. Now, if the secretariat calls, they ask us for our fee and requirements. Also, location is now granted on priority for shooting and the police provide security,” says Tiwari.
Nitish Kumar is too canny to miss the signs. He senses that the mood could be in his favour and it is beginning to show in his walk and talk. He is Mr Bihar now and he loves it. He calls a cabinet meeting on board a ship in the Ganga, and the local media laps it up. He holds camps in various parts of the state, during which time he also chairs a cabinet meeting on site, and the people applaud. He believes he is heading the biggest reconstruction story in India. He also believes he is right. He is beginning to acquire the same self-righteousness that Lalu Prasad Yadav once had. It led Lalu into a world of his own where he did no wrong. Bihar went into the dark ages but Lalu saw the reverse in his mind.
Everyone in Bihar has an opinion on everything. They are assertive and difficult to dislodge from the positions they hold. It is a curious trait of Bihar, possibly India’s most politically conscious state. Yet, when it comes to governance, Bihar tends to idolise a man at the top and make him think he is above the crowd. Lalu was king once. Nitish is now. Lalu was a man of the people, a PR man’s dream. He could connect. He ruled by instinct. He knew the value of gesture. Nitish is a bureaucrat’s dream. He can perform. He rules by reason. He knows the value of delivery.
IT IS not all hunky dory, however. Most of the buzz is being generated from a 30km belt around Patna. Beyond that, life can be cruel. Niranjan Paswan is the Gaya district secretary of the CPI-ML (Liberation), a Left party that once operated as a guerrilla unit. Gaya is Bihar’s second biggest town after Patna. It also has an airport, which largely caters to the tourists who flock to Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment. Paswan sits in an office covered by asbestos sheets. A television set sits on bricks. Wooden poles support the entire structure. Paswan’s wife and son also work in the same office for the party. He deals mostly with the rural poor, arguably the worst off in Bihar. Working among the deprived, Paswan sees little change in Bihar. “It is a routine with us. We hear of people dying of hunger, we visit them, we make a noise, and the administration says they died of disease. Please tell me where the change is,” he says.
Gajichak village in Gaya’s Dobhi block seems to be a century behind Patna. It is about noon on a Sunday and a boy is stuffing what appears to be the hind portion of a dead goat. Only the skin remains, with the hind legs dangling. There is no flesh. The boy carefully stuffs the carcass with hay. He then gets a fire going. He is joined by a few other children. “He will cook it now,” says Paswan. Apparently, the fire will burn the hair on the goat skin and roast it from the outside. The hay inside, used for the stuffing, will catch fire and cook the skin from the inside. This will be the Sunday meal. Anywhere else, the skin would be chucked as waste. Here, it is a delicacy.
Kunwa Devi, who lives in the same village, has four children: three girls and a boy. She says she is 35 years old. Her husband used to work in a nearby farm. In May 2009 he died, apparently of hunger. Kunwa Devi says her husband developed a fever, which the local quack said was malaria. There was no money for medicines, so some of the village folk pooled money for the medicines. They ran out of the medicine eventually. Also, there was very little food in the house when her husband couldn’t work because he was ill. She says her husband stopped eating so that the children could eat. “We used to get grass from the jungle to feed him. It was not enough,” she says.
Paswan says Kunwa Devi’s husband died of hunger. The administration says he died of illness. The family lives in a hutment with three small rooms. There are just the walls and a few vessels. There is a small bag of coarse rice, which she says she gets as daily wages when she works in a farm. She gets no money, she says. She has just fed the children with the rice and the gruel that formed while the rice was cooked. She cannot see with her left eye. She says a branch pierced her eye. No one in her family uses footwear. The children’s hair is matted. They haven’t had a bath for days.
Paswan’s boss, Dipankar Bhattacharya, General Secretary of the CPIML (Liberation), is in his Patna office. Most political parties in Bihar have their headquarters on the same road, Vir Chand Patel Path, and the CPI-ML is a neighbour of the Bharatiya Janata Party. There is a maze of wires hanging from a plug point, a laptop waits on the table and there is a bonfire going. There is a sudden sharp drizzle before Bhattacharya comes. His wife and daughter are in London, and he spends his life fighting for betterment in the lives of the rural poor and the most economically backward of Bihar. He has been general secretary for 11 years. His party has five members in the legislative assembly.
“It will be wrong to say there has been no change in five years. Lalu’s 15-year reign was synonymous with absolute stagnation. There is a decline in big crime. Some sort of a nationalisation of crime has taken place. The big criminals are earning as much through transport. If you have the state’s coffers open to you, why would you loot and kidnap? Also, the discourse has changed. It has moved from social justice and dignity to good governance and growth,” says Bhattacharya.
“But, there is a big problem. Feudal Bihar is a stubborn survivor. The government will pretend to do land reform but will sit on actual reform. Socially, there is very little progress. Change is not free. You have to pay a big price. For a small change, there has to be a big fight.”
SCHOLARS AND academics find the hype over Bihar’s growth baffling. NK Chaudhary, Professor in Patna University’s Department of Economics, is grappling with a sudden teacher’s strike in the university. “Can you imagine a strike anywhere whose sole demand is payment of salaries on time?” he says. Like many in Bihar, Chaudhary is perplexed at the 11.3 per cent growth figure for Bihar released by the Central Statistical Organisation in New Delhi early January. The figures made people look at Bihar anew and generated a big buzz. People began to compare Bihar with Gujarat, which Chaudhary says is ingenious.
“The growth may not be real because Bihar is not a miracle economy. The basis of the figures is also weakened after Pronab Sen, Chief Statistician of India, said it was wrong to attribute the figures to the CSO. Much of the hype created by Nitish then falls flat. It is too good to believe. All of a sudden you tell a beggar you are a rich man. If your base is low, even a little forward movement will be big,” says Chaudhary.
Chaudhary says Bihar may be shining for a few, but for the rest, Bihar is sinking. He lists the improvements: in health, law and order, and roads. He lists the non-improvements: a bureaucracy that has supreme power in a democracy, no rule of law, no land reform, no water resource management, no proper faculty in higher education, increase in scale of corruption because of more funds flow, no action against bureaucrats for graft, and distress migration.
BIHAR HAS not found panacea. If Gujarat were to start from the same base as Bihar, it would probably register 40 per cent growth. It is difficult to spot a functioning state in Bihar over the past 60 years. Not a single new area has been developed from the pre-Independence period in Bihar. There is no history of entrepreneurship for at least three generations. There is no renaissance in Bihar, now or in the past. There is no Jnanpith Award winner in Bihar. There is virtually no corporate presence. The extent of inequity is high. And yet, there is a sense of optimism. It raises the possibility that Bihar may attempt the long haul honestly this time.
Shaibal Gupta, Member-Secretary of the Asian Development Research Institute, a leading think-tank in Patna, thinks there is significance in recent events. “Why is Nitish Kumar important? He is the first chief minister of Bihar to take cognisance of the absence of the state in the state. He has succeeded marginally in the mammoth task of building state structures. He was the first to set up an Administrative Reforms Commission. He was the first to set up a Land Reforms Commission. He is starting from scratch. He is creating an atmosphere where the Prakash Jhas can flourish,” says Gupta. He says what happens in Bihar now is critical because in two years, “Each of the 600 districts in India will have a Bihari District Magistrate or Superintendent of Police”. “Bihar has moved from a ‘touch-me-not’ society to a ‘try-me-now’ society. This is a benchmark for a resistant state.”
Brand Bihar is also getting noticed because of the Bihar Foundation. Operating under the state government, the Foundation works on a simple brief of ‘bonding and branding’. It bonds by creating chapters in various cities in India and outside. The newest chapter is in Bengaluru and there are chapters in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata, and in Dubai, Doha and South Korea outside India. The chapters think about what affects Biharis in their areas, and helps non-resident Biharis trace their roots and do something for where they came from.
The theory of roots is a powerful concept. It can make strong men and women yearn for memories as children. Often, this yearning can take the shape of catharsis. Mookhesswur Choonee is Mauritius’ High Commissioner to India. He gets astonishingly sentimental when it comes to Bihar. He describes Mauritius as an “extended leg of Bihar”. He says he is proud to see how Bihar has progressed. “People often ask me are you the high commissioner of Bihar,” he says. Choonee says the prime minister of Mauritius “belongs to Bihar” and that “people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are running Mauritius”.
Anil Kumar Bachoo, Mauritius’ Minister of Public Infrastructure, Land Transport, and Shipping, can get touchier about Bihar. “In the 1970s, I was a student in Delhi. My seniors told me not to interact with anyone from Bihar because they are backward and cannot rise in life. Well, a few weeks ago, my prime minister told me to go and get some Biharis to Mauritius. We have retained in Mauritius what they have lost in Bihar. Mauritius is a little Bihar. When they catch cold in Bihar, we sneeze in Mauritius. We are proud of our roots. Bihar was the fount of civilisation. It is the torchbearer of India in future,” says Bachoo.
That may take some doing, but there are nuggets that suggest that respect for honesty and hard work may yet save Bihar. Rakesh Sharma is a businessman who rents out a community centre in downtown Patna for marriages and runs a cooking gas agency. The community centre can host a maximum of a thousand guests in comfort. “In November- December 2009, we used 20 litres diesel for the generator during power cuts. In 2008, we needed 200 litres.”
These are the parts of the whole that Nitish Kumar hopes to build of a new Bihar. For too long, the state of Bihar has not delivered. This is rock bottom. It’s a good place to start.